What illness did Karen Blixen have?

Answered by Douglas Hiatt

Karen Blixen, the Danish author best known for her memoir “Out of Africa,” was diagnosed with syphilis in the second stage in March 1941, just two months after her wedding. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It progresses in stages, and the second stage is characterized by a variety of symptoms.

Upon her diagnosis, Blixen underwent treatment for syphilis. At that time, the primary treatment option for syphilis was mercury. Mercury was administered either orally or through injections, with the aim of killing the bacteria causing the infection. This treatment was often accompanied by side effects, such as gastrointestinal issues, kidney problems, and in some cases, mercury poisoning. However, it was the standard treatment for syphilis during that era.

Later on, Blixen traveled back to Denmark, where she received further treatment for her syphilis. At this point, the primary treatment option had shifted to a drug called salvarsan. Salvarsan, also known as arsphenamine, was developed in the early 1900s and was considered a breakthrough in syphilis treatment. It was administered via injection and aimed to kill the bacteria causing the infection. Like mercury, salvarsan had potential side effects, including allergic reactions and damage to the liver and kidneys.

It is worth noting that the treatment for syphilis has evolved significantly since Blixen’s time. Today, syphilis is typically treated with antibiotics such as penicillin, which are highly effective in eradicating the infection. Early detection and treatment are crucial in preventing the progression of syphilis and its potential long-term complications.

Syphilis is a complex and potentially devastating disease. It can affect various organs and systems in the body if left untreated or treated inadequately. The infection can progress to the latent and tertiary stages, where it can cause severe damage to the cardiovascular system, nervous system, and other vital organs. Fortunately, with proper medical care and treatment, syphilis can be effectively managed and its complications minimized.

Karen Blixen was diagnosed with syphilis in the second stage shortly after her wedding. She underwent treatment initially with mercury and later received further treatment with salvarsan in Denmark. It is important to recognize the historical context of her diagnosis and treatment, as the medical understanding and treatment options for syphilis have significantly advanced since then.